Windows XP SP2 Beta Review
by Arie Slob
Hello Windows users,
Microsoft recently released the first beta of Service Pack 2 for Windows XP to testers. Over the holidays I installed it on two systems, and checked it out.
SP2 promises to enhance the security of Windows XP, mainly by switching on a Windows Firewall (formerly known as Internet Connection Firewall), and the configuration of Automatic Updates.
The first thing you'll see after installing this Service Pack is a blue screen (Figure) telling you that in order to protect your PC, you should switch on Automatic Updates. Only two choices are offered:
- Yes, help me protect my PC by automatically downloading and installing updates (strongly recommended)
- Ask me again later
If you choose Ask me again later you'll get another screen telling you We strongly recommend that you turn on Automatic Updates now, and some explanation why you should do just that.
The configuration screen of Automatic Updates (under System Properties) has also been slightly changed (Figure). Instead of three options it now offers four, but they are the same options, just represented more clearly with an option I don't want automatic updates. Don't notify me of important updates for my computer replacing the old check-box Keep my computer up to date.
Automatic Updates is set by default to the first option: Update my computer automatically at scheduled times. Install new updates: Every day at 03:00. Maybe it would be better if you would be asked to specify a time. Many people switch off their computers at night, and this may prevent patches from being downloaded (although I haven't tested this).
If you don't choose to have Automatic Updates switched on, it seems to keep the settings you had previously (I had mine set to I just want to be notified of new updates. Don't download or install them for me).
The Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) will in the future be known as Windows Firewall. In this beta, it is still referred to as ICF. To provide better protection for computers connected to any kind of network (such as the Internet, or a home network), SP2 enables ICF on all network connections by default. The default setting offers a decent level of protection, and shouldn't cause problems connecting over networks (both local & Internet). There's a second setting called On with no exceptions (figure). This setting blocks ALL outside connections to your computer. Microsoft advises to use this setting "when connecting to a wireless network in less secure locations such as restaurants, hotels, and airports".
The new firewall is also more configurable. For example the Exceptions tab (Figure) lets you add/remove programs & services that require connections from outside sources, while the Network Connections tab (Figure) lists all your configured network connections, and let you disable/enable protection per network connection just by checking/un-checking a checkbox.
The firewall settings can also be reached more easily, by just right-clicking the connections icon in the notification area and choosing Configure Internet Connection Firewall from the menu.
Internet Explorer (finally) gets a pop-up blocker. When you first visit a Web site that tries to pop a window on you, you will be asked if you want to switch on IE's pop-up manager (Figure). The pop-up manager can be either switched on/off from the Tools menu directly (Figure), or by going to the Privacy tab on the Internet Options dialog (Figure). You can also set additional options, such as allowing certain sites to serve pop-up windows, or to have Windows alert you by a sound that a pop-up was blocked. You can then use an icon on the Internet Explorer toolbar to show that pop-up window anyway, or place the site to your "allow" list, so it will be able to show you pop-ups (Figure). This can be particularly helpful on banking Web sites, which sometimes use pop-up windows to show you additional information.
Other Security Enhancements
The Windows Messenger service (not to be confused with the instant messaging client Windows Messenger), is disabled by default in SP2. The Windows Messenger service has been the target of spam pop-ups for more than a year, and there are also some concerns that this service could be exploited by hackers.
Outlook Express will no longer download external content (such as images) in HTML email by default (just like Outlook), which will help reduce spam & the proliferation of malware & worms.
Attached files (to email of Messenger) will also be treated as dangerous by default and only allowed to execute with limited permissions.
The latest versions of Windows Media Player 9 and DirectX 9.0b are also included; both versions contain the latest security fixes.
Other areas that are improved are the Remote Procedure Call service in Windows, widely known when it was targeted by the MS Blaster worm last year. This service no longer accepts unauthenticated connections.
For a more in-depth view on SP2, read this Microsoft TechNet article: Changes to Functionality in Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2.
Windows XP Service Pack 2 will be released around the summer of this year.
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